I lost track of Ugly Americans’ appeal at some point during its second half-season, mostly because I felt the show had lost track of itself. That first run of episodes in early 2010 set up a world where the bizarre and spectacular were amusingly mundane. And because all this weirdness was treated as just another day at the office, the smaller, more human flaws of the show’s characters could come to the fore. Those characters were funny, and Ugly Americans built itself a solid foundation.

But somewhere along the line, the bizarre and spectacular came to be treated as the bizarre and spectacular. Counterintuitively—or at least contrary to the creators’ apparent intuition—the show itself became mundane. Plots became more and more outlandish, and Ugly Americans tangled itself in its own lore. Episodes like “Soul Sucker” (in which whitebread group therapist Mark accompanies demonic office hottie Callie to an elaborate underworld ritual) and “Wet Hot Demonic Summer” (a laborious Harry Potter satire) suffocated under the weight of their bombastic conceits. The characters turned into near-interchangeable bystanders on a show that kept trying to top itself.

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Over the last couple of months, Ugly Americans found its groove again. The show is still prone to flights of fancy, as it should be, but it takes those strange journeys in service of its cast and not to feed a misguided need for pageantry. The best example of this renewed focus—and the best episode of this most recent run—is “The Roast Of Twayne The Boneraper.” The premise of this episode from late March is simple and familiar: Underling doesn’t respect boss, underling takes over boss’ job, and underling learns that the gig is tougher than it looks. What the Ugly Americans creative team has realized is that a simple premise is plenty. When the show focuses on telling modest, humane stories with heart, all the over-the-top lunacy (like the brilliant Department Of Birthdays in “The Roast”) works so much better, because it has a purpose other than itself.

This recent run has been the funniest stretch of Ugly Americans since the show’s debut month, and while “Fools For Love” may not be the pinnacle of the season, it still has its charms. The main plot sees Mark caught up in what is either an elaborate prank—given that it’s April Fool’s Day—or a very real attempt to escape from a former Department Of Integration employee who’s hellbent on revenge. The “prank or not?” tension doesn’t quite fuel the episode the way the writers might like. There’s just not a lot of juice to be squeezed from scenes in which Mark declares with forced certainty that this whole thing is a dumb joke. And once central characters start getting stabbed in the second act, we know how this is going to end, so it becomes a matter of waiting for the charade to be revealed.

Mark does get a great scene, though, when he delivers a speech about just why he hates pranks—because his stepfather walked out on his family as part of a practical joke. The sheer inhumanity of the story has its own morbid humor, but what sells this scene is the abject boredom of the group therapy group. The “Mark bares his soul and nobody cares” angle always works, and I never mind when Ugly Americans returns to that well.

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In the B-plot, Leonard the office wizard holds a winning lottery ticket, but there’s a catch: “In a fun new twist,” explains the anus-headed lottery-drawing host, “the lucky winner has only 24 hours to redeem the ticket!” The flip nature of this line is a tacit admission that this entire subplot is pretty moronic, but I like that the writers explain it away so casually. The show has tested the fourth wall like this more often lately, and to me, it’s a sign of a more relaxed creative staff. Instead of trying to wow us at every turn, Ugly Americans is comfortable enough to say, “This is silly, but let’s run with it.” So we do, as Leonard grudgingly teams with Mark’s zombie roommate Randall—a fun combination—and takes a detour into Deliverance territory. There’s some hilarious animation in the final moments of this adventure, when Leonard writhes on the floor in agony.

If the episode had been a solid half hour of D.O.I. cop Frank Grimes playing incredibly uncreative and cruel pranks on inmates and loved ones, I don’t think I could have complained. The Grimes character can get a little grating at times, but voice actor Larry Murphy kills it in this episode, delivering all the patented Grimes monkeyshines with the perfect deadpan: “Now, I’m going to call my youngest daughter and tell her I’ve got cancer.”

When the main plot resolves, Mark and Callie get engaged to be engaged to be married. It’s another wink to the audience. We’re “developing” the characters, the writers tell us, but not too fast. That seems like the right approach to me. There’s no need for Ugly Americans to rush things, given that the show has only recently caught its second wind.

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And look, I can understand why the creators might have been pressing for a while there. Comedy Central executives cancel shows the way a normal person might flick lint off a shirt collar. That can’t be the most relaxing environment in which to work. But it’s a stressor the show needed to overcome, and it has. Ugly Americans is the rare instance of a program, once lost, that found itself again.

Stray Observations:

  • The notion that Eric the robot was once a normal human being was a funny piece of back-story. I found myself wishing that part were “true” and not part of the ruse. So I will choose to believe it is true, and perhaps someday we all can be world-weary robots who poop D-cells.
  • Actor Matt Oberg never oversells those understated, oddly funny Mark Lilly lines like, “I’ve seen that movie okay? I reviewed it on my movie blog.” Or “They mocked me for having a keychain light. Well, who’s laughing now?”
  • In the vast universe of mediocre, forgotten sitcoms, I love the peculiar choice of Gary Unmarried as a subject of repeated mockery.

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